The climax of Kati Marton’s captivating new biography of Angela Merkel, “The Chancellor,” comes in 2015, when the German leader refused to close her country’s borders to a tide of refugees fleeing civil war and state collapse in the Middle East and Africa.
“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” Merkel said, calling on the other members of the European Union to take in more people as well. “I don’t want to get into a competition in Europe of who can treat these people the worst.” For the usually stolid and cautious chancellor, it was a great political leap, a sudden act of moral heroism that would define her legacy.
By the end of the year, a million refugees had come. Many observers predicted disaster. According to Marton, Henry Kissinger, ever callous, told Merkel, “To shelter one refugee is a humanitarian act, but to allow one million strangers in is to endanger German civilization.” Marton quotes my colleague Ross Douthat writing that anyone who believes that Germany can “peacefully absorb a migration of that size and scale of cultural difference” is a “fool.” She describes former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s fear that the refugees would be Merkel’s “political undoing.”
For a while, it seemed like some of this pessimism was warranted. Douthat’s column was inspired by a hideous outburst of violence in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, in which a mob of largely Middle Eastern and North African men sexually assaulted scores of women. The refugee influx fueled the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, which in 2017 won 94 seats to become the largest opposition party in Parliament. Some blamed Merkel’s policy for spooking Brits into supporting Brexit. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump seized on it. Though Merkel retained the chancellorship after the 2017 elections, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, lost 65 seats.
But six years later, the catastrophes predicted by Merkel’s critics haven’t come to pass.
In the recent German election, refugees were barely an issue, and the AfD lost ground. “The sense is that there has been comparatively little Islamic extremism or extremist crime resulting from this immigration, and that on the whole, the largest number of these immigrants have been successfully integrated into the German work force and into German society overall,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution.
“With the passage of time,” Marton told me, Merkel “turned out to have chosen the absolutely right course for not only Germany but for the world.”
The refugee policy was what inspired Marton, a former ABC News bureau chief in Germany and the author of nine previous books, to write about Merkel in the first place. Marton is herself the daughter of refugees from Hungary, journalists who had been imprisoned by the Communist regime, and the granddaughter of victims of Auschwitz. (She’s also the widow of the famed diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whom she began dating when he was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Germany.) Watching Merkel in the summer of 2015, said Marton, “I just thought wow, who is she, and how is she getting away with this?”
Part of the reason that Germans accepted — and in many cases celebrated — Merkel’s decision lies in their country’s unique relationship to its national history. Germany has made reckoning with the Holocaust central to its identity, and many citizens grabbed eagerly at this chance for redemption.
“When their trains pulled into the gleaming Munich station, exhausted men, women and children were greeted by a sea of signs that read, ‘Welcome to Germany,’ held aloft by cheering citizens lining the platforms,” wrote Marton. Volunteers converted schools and stores into dormitories. “Germans were more than happy — in fact, thrilled — to see themselves in the role of humanitarian saviors,” said Stelzenmüller.
But the refugees had more to offer Germany than a burnished self-image. In an aging country with a low birthrate, they were a useful addition to the work force. The economy, Stelzenmüller said, “was looking for labor before the pandemic, and so there was a real demand and presumably a willingness from the labor market and companies to help people. And of course we have a long experience, a decades-long practice, of on-the-job training that is seen as a model by other European countries and in fact by America.”
Not all the lessons of Germany’s refugee experience will be welcomed by progressives. Merkel, after all, headed a center-right party, and her government took a conservative approach to assimilation. “Refugees have a responsibility to adapt to German ways,” Marton quotes Merkel saying at a meeting of her party in 2015. “Multiculturalism is a sham.”
The newcomers were required to learn German and they were settled throughout the country to avoid ghettoization. Merkel, wrote Marton, “was determined to avoid the dense concentration of immigrants that ring cities in France and Great Britain.”
And in the end, Merkel didn’t leave the border open, eventually negotiating a controversial deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to take in asylum seekers and prevent them from continuing on to Europe. She didn’t remain in power for 16 years by letting emotion outpace her sense of realpolitik.
All the same, in absorbing a million desperate people at a time when others were putting up razor wire, Germany did something great, something the rest of the world could learn from as wars and ecological calamity send many millions more trudging across the globe in search of sanctuary.
“We now have a case study, an example, of how it can work, and I’m hoping the world will make use of Merkel’s example,” said Marton. The chancellor’s refrain in 2015 was, “We can do this.” If only the rest of us could too.